“THE SUNSHINE State,” covering an area of 58,560 square mi (151,714 square km), is the most southern state of the UNITED STATES and is mainly a large lowlying peninsula, measuring from north to south about 430 mi (690 km), bounded by the ATLANTIC OCEAN on the east, the Gulf of Mexico on the west, and the Straits of Florida on the south. The state’s northern border is bounded by the states of GEORGIA and ALABAMA. Alabama also bounds the Panhandle’s western border. Florida includes the Florida Keys, a chain of islands extending southwesterly from Biscayne Bay at the southern end of the peninsula, and many barrier islands line the coasts. Many of these keys and barrier islands are small and uninhabited. The state’s highest point, the Western Highlands of the northern Panhandle, is 345 ft (105 m) above sea level.
Despite popular conception, Florida is a land of geographic diversity. Northeastern Florida is like much of the state, predominantly flatland of hardwood forests and slash pine flatwoods, dotted with the saw palmetto. Riverbanks are lined with mighty live oaks laden with Spanish moss. The northeast’s prominent geographic feature is the surprisingly wide and deep St. Johns River, in which dolphins play under bridges.
The Panhandle, with the capital city of Tallahassee and the coastal town of Panama City, is low rolling hills and farmland characteristic of the Deep South. The peninsula, composed of central and south Florida, includes open forests, citrus groves, GRASSLANDS, freshwater swaps, lakes, and open vistas, with tropical hardwood forests or hammocks in the south. The chief city of central Florida is Orlando. Tampa and St. Petersburg, both at the huge Tampa Bay, are the urban center of the Gulf Coast of the peninsula. South Florida’s largest city is Miami. The most notable geographic features in the south are the Everglades, a massive area of WETLANDS and perhaps the most endangered ECOSYSTEM in North America, and Lake Okeechobee. The Everglades National Park includes 1.5 million acres (566,580 hectares) and occupies only one-fifth of the Everglades.
Florida’s over 1,000 mi (1,600 km) of wide and sandy beaches, such as those at Daytona, Destin, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale are among of the most beautiful and famous in the world. These vary from powdery white sand to crushed shell and coral. Windswept dunes flank many, while other beaches to the south are lined with stately royal palms. The Gulf beaches are known for their warm emerald water in contrast to the thunderous waves of the east coast. The Atlantic seaboard is fringed by 800 km (500 mi) of the Intracoastal Waterway, a long and narrow haven for pleasure craft.
The northern half of the state contains over 320 pristine freshwater springs, recharged by heavy rainfalls. Labyrinths of subterranean rivers connect many of these springs, some opening to the sea. Another curious feature of the northern half of the peninsula is the sinkholes formed from the erosion of the limestone bedrock. These depressions led to the formation of many of the state’s over 30,000 lakes and ponds and have often appeared suddenly to swallow cars and homes.
Much of Florida’s interior remains wild and undeveloped, and about 50 percent of the state is covered in forest, with about half of that commercial. Its groves produce over 70 percent of the citrus fruits consumed by Americas annually, most notably oranges. The sugarcane, vegetable, cattle, and lumber industries thrive in the state’s geography and climate. This diversity of landscape and warm climate, where the temperate zone meets the subtropical, affords an abundance of natural habitats supporting animal life as diverse as the alligator, bobcat, bear, deer, bald eagle, manatee, and the elusive Florida panther.
The state is a major tourist destination thanks to its beaches, good weather, fresh- and saltwater sport fishing, and ever-expanding family attractions extending around the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando. The usually clear weather also attracted the placement of the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral; the good weather is punctuated by occasional yet sometimes devastating hurricanes, such as Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
Sparsely populated for most of its history, Florida now struggles with rapid development, urbanization, and population growth, with a population in 2000 of 15,982,378. The state has a colorful and diverse cultural life, ranging from the Deep South atmosphere in the north to the Cuban influence in the south. The few remaining Seminole strive to maintain their culture in the south.
DISCOVERY AND DEVELOPMENT
Florida has a rich history shaped by it strategic position and geography. It served as Europe’s first frontier in North America and a bloody battleground between the Spanish and French empires. The peninsula, although first thought to be an island, was discovered for Spanish exploration and colonization, and corresponding exploitation of its native population, on April 2, 1513, by Juan Ponce de Leon. It is believed that his landing was near the site of Melbourne Beach on the ATLANTIC OCEAN. Legend says de Leon sought the fountain of youth, but he was more certainly in search of gold. He named the low expanse of land on the horizon “La Florida” (land of flowers).
Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded North America’s first permanent European settlement, St. Augustine, at Matanzas Bay on Florida’s northeastern coast in 1565. Menendez captured a settlement of French Huguenots at Fort Caroline, at the mouth of the St. Johns River, and later executed the members of a shipwrecked French expedition at the Matanzas Massacre. FRANCE no longer posed a serious challenge. At St. Augustine, a garrisoned town and fort was built to protect the Spanish treasure route, to provide a site for rescuing frequently shipwrecked Spaniards, to serve as a base of coordination for missionary and inland exploration efforts, and maintain Spain’s claim to the region. Nevertheless, the St. Augustine settlement was subject to raids by pirates and English privateers, the most famous led by Sir Frances Drake in 1586, in which the town was burned.
In response to pirate and British threats, the construction of a stone fort, Castillo de San Marcos, was started at St. Augustine in 1672. This imposing structure, which still stands, was built from a remarkable sedimentary limestone rock called coquina, which is easily cut when soaked. Coquina is formed from compacted seashells and corals, and was quarried on nearby Anastasia Island. The then state-of-the-art fortress, with its moat, watchtowers, drawbridge, thick walls, and ramparts that swallowed enemy cannonballs without shattering, withstood major pirate and English assaults. From the secure foothold of Florida, Spain’s conquistadors led expeditions probing the North American continent, the most famous led by Hernando de Soto.
Except for a period of British rule from 1764 to 1783, during which royal botanist William Bartram recorded Florida’s fauna, flora, and native peoples, Florida was a Spanish colony until ceded to the UNITED STATES by a treaty of 1819, with formal transfer in 1821. Statehood was achieved in 1845; thus making Florida the 27th state. The population of the state remained concentrated in the north and the Panhandle until railroad lines were constructed down both coasts, even connecting the Florida Keys, by railroad barons such as Henry Flagler. These lines spurred tourism, development, and periodic real-estate booms.